James Loney continues quiet climb

LOS ANGELES -- It was nothing more than a flash in time, a fleeting moment in a single game, something that will soon be long forgotten by most of us who see a major league game almost every day.

But for Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, manager Don Mattingly and hitting coach Jeff Pentland, it was something they had waited so long to see they had to be wondering if they would ever see it again.

It came early in the Dodgers' 3-2 victory over the Florida Marlins on Friday night at Dodger Stadium, in the bottom of the second inning. And it came off the bat of first baseman James Loney.

Yes, it was a home run, off veteran right-hander Javier Vazquez, giving the Dodgers a 1-0 lead that ultimately wouldn't hold up. But it was more about the type of home run it was, that Loney got all of a fastball, squared it up, pulled it to straightaway right field and dumped it deep into the visiting bullpen.

This was exactly what they had been talking about -- not necessarily the home run, but the perfectly balanced approach at the plate that had produced it. It isn't like it represented a sudden emergence from the wilderness for Loney. That has actually been coming for a while now, long enough that his truly dismal April is becoming a distant memory. He had a 10-game hitting streak until going 0-for-3 with a walk Wednesday at Houston, and he now is hitting 68 points higher in May (.278) than he was through the end of April (.210), with three times as many extra-base hits (six as opposed to two).

If anything, this was the culmination of a quiet resurrection for Loney, one that went virtually unnoticed because it came as the team's collective offense was going into the deep-freeze, where it basically remains even now.

Even for Loney, though, the work is far from finished.

"I feel confident in what I'm doing," he said. "But I still have to go out and battle and hit tough pitchers. It feels really good right now. It has been a process. Sometimes, you want it to happen sooner, where you get back to hitting the ball the way you know you can. Sometimes, that happens a little later than you want it to."

The home run was just the second of the season for Loney, and the first since April 6. He had gone 175 consecutive plate appearances without one. Four years ago, Loney hit a career-high 15 homers in 344 big league at-bats, that in a season in which he spent about two months in the minors, so the power is there. But in three subsequent full seasons in the majors, he never has matched that total again, and this year, he is on pace to hit six.

Colletti, Mattingly and even former manager Joe Torre have insisted for years that Loney, as a corner infielder, needs to provide the Dodgers with more power. As a result, there may have been times when Loney felt the pressure to do that, although Colletti has insisted they never specifically asked him to hit more home runs.

"We're really just looking for more solid at-bats and not the rollovers or the fly balls to left," Mattingly said. "He has been creeping. There was a point when he was hitting .180 or so, but he has been creeping up. Hopefully, this was a little step along the way, but we're not so concerned with home runs. We just want him to have good at-bats.

"It's getting better. He is having more solid at-bats, I think."

In what became only the fourth win in 13 games for the fourth-place Dodgers (23-29), keeping them within six games of the division-leading San Francisco Giants in the National League West, Loney's contribution wasn't limited to the home run. He made a nice stab on a liner by Logan Morrison with the speedy Hanley Ramirez on second and nobody out in the eighth. Later in that same inning, he reached over a barricade into a camera well to snare a foul pop by Mike Stanton with runners on the corners and one out, unwittingly starting what became a critical, inning-ending double play when Gaby Sanchez wandered too far off third and got into a rundown.

But for a Dodgers team that has averaged 2.8 runs during those 13 games, it was Loney's home run -- which, typically for the Dodgers, came with two outs and nobody on -- that loomed largest.

Loney's recovery has been a gradual process, as these things tend to be. Early in the season, he appeared to be totally lost at the plate, something he now blames on trying so hard to perfect his swing mechanically that he lost his timing. As time went on, he began to feel more comfortable in batting practice. The problem was taking that into a game.

"Sometimes, you think what you're doing feels really good in BP," Loney said. "But if you think about it, this is really the only sport where we don't practice at game speed. In basketball and football, you practice at game speed, but in baseball, we don't."

The only solution, he said, was enough time and plate appearances against real major league pitchers in real games. Eventually, that allows you the luxury of not having to think too much at the plate.

"It's just repetition, building that muscle memory and having a feel," he said.

If there is an anomaly to Loney's April/May splits, it is that he drove in 12 runs during his otherwise bleak April but has driven in only three during his breakout May. That is easily explained, though. Simply put, the Dodgers have stunk offensively in May, so Loney has usually come to the plate with nobody on base or in scoring position. The Dodgers need him to be a run producer, but in this case, it isn't really his fault that he hasn't been.

In that regard, you could make the case Loney won't be fully cured until the rest of the lineup gets well along with him. But for a guy who has been the target of so much negative scrutiny this season, Loney -- and Colletti, Mattingly, Pentland et al -- can at least take comfort in the fact he is finally doing his part, even if not a lot of others are doing theirs.

For the Dodgers, this was one victory. For Loney, this was one home run.

For both, it's a start. The key is where they go from here.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.